United States, China and the future of great power competition

“It seems to me our responsibility as leaders of China and the United States is to ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended; just simple, straightforward competition.”

U.S. President Joe Biden was reported to have said these words to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during their November virtual summit meeting. While Biden’s sentiment speaks to U.S. – and indeed global – concerns about the trajectory of the U.S.-China relationship, averting conflict between the two countries will require sustained diplomatic efforts.

The relationship between the world’s two superpowers is now well into a new and dangerous era. Trends in Chinese statecraft initiated under Xi’s early tenure as general secretary of the Communist Party of China began this process, which was accelerated by the administration of former U.S. President Donald J. Trump, which cast Beijing as a “great power competitor” in no uncertain terms.

While the Biden administration has sought to distance itself from much of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy – particularly in terms of how the United States views its allies and partners – it did not fundamentally reassess the new normal in the relationship with China.

During their November virtual meeting, Biden proposed “common sense guardrails” for the U.S.-China relationship, recognizing the real risk of conflict between the two countries. Days earlier, the U.S. Department of Defense published its congressionally mandated report on Chinese military capabilities, which detailed a grim picture for the fast-waning military dominance in the Indo-Pacific region that the United States had enjoyed for years.

The key determinants of a U.S.-China conflict are not universally agreed – in either Washington or Beijing. What is clear, however, is that threat perceptions are high on both sides. Chinese leaders feared a U.S. attack in late 2020, according to some recently published accounts of the Trump administration’s final months in office.

The Pentagon itself, in its recent report to Congress, observed that “[China] perceived a significant threat that the United States would seek to provoke a military crisis or conflict in the near-term”. Indeed, these fears led the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to reach out to his Chinese counterpart. Meanwhile, in Washington, concerns that Beijing may soon wage a war of choice to forcibly unify with Taiwan show no signs of abating.

With high threat perceptions and low certainty about the antecedents to war, both sides are focused on deterrence. In Washington, “integrated deterrence” is all the buzz; in Beijing, Xi continues to articulate the need to foster a “world-class” military to safeguard Chinese “sovereignty and security” – presumably through deterring U.S. intervention should the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) move to seize Taiwan.

In the absence of guardrails and sustained diplomacy on their mutual mistrust, each side’s pursuit of deterrence threatens to lead instead to a spiral: instead of successfully deterring, U.S. and Chinese actions could cascade threat perceptions on the other side, prompting a further build-up of capability.

Biden’s call for “common sense guardrails” can help clarify intentions and avoid the worst consequences of a prolonged U.S.-China spiral, namely an all-out war. Formal and informal guardrails won’t solve the competitive nature of U.S.-China ties, which are likely to persist for some time, but they can attenuate the most dangerous near-term risks.

Some of these channels already exist between the two sides. The PLA and the U.S. military have a Crisis Communications Working Group and a Military Maritime Consultative Agreement Working Group, for instance. These channels can help generate habits of cooperation between the two sides, but have worked imperfectly in recent times.

These mechanisms, notably, failed to avert major incidents, including a 2001 collision between a U.S. surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter and a 2009 incident that saw Chinese naval vessels harass a U.S. merchant marine ship. More recently, incidents in the air and sea have grown, particularly in the contested South China Sea. The pandemic has also slowed opportunities for military-military contacts.

War between the United States and China is not predetermined; nor is it inevitable. But reducing the sources of insecurity on both sides that could lead to war will require political will on both sides. Biden’s call for guardrails, while sensible, will only produce useful results if reciprocated by Xi. While Xi did not dismiss the suggestion outright, the aftermath of their meeting has not produced meaningful momentum toward high-level contacts on these matters.

For instance, Gen. Xu Qiliang, the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should be able to convene a channel to address these types of guardrails. Without sustained high-level talks, the possibility for miscalculation in the next crisis will be significant.

The window of opportunity to set up “common sense guardrails” will not be indefinite. For example, domestic political change in the United States in 2025, with the potential return of a second Trump administration or another similarly minded ‘America First’ Republican administration, could heighten the prospects of war. Even though it may be difficult to build crisis management mechanisms that could endure under such conditions, building new habits of communication and transparency between the two sides today could bear dividends in future crises.

While the U.S. and China do disagree and will continue to disagree on a range of matters, they cannot let this disagreement stymie their pursuit of mechanisms that can avert a war that neither side may deliberately seek. This work must begin now.

Ankit Panda is the Stanton senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.